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3.12 pm

Mr. John Grogan (Selby): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) in the debate. He based his assertion that Labour Back Benchers were split down the middle on this issue on a sample of two Back Benchers' speeches. That was a small sample, but I believe that he was not far wrong. After my speech, the sample will be only a little bit larger, but it will show that 66 per cent. of us have some reservations about Government policy.

I was emboldened to speak in the debate by three things. First, the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) said on Monday that he was particularly interested in hearing from Labour Back Benchers during this debate, and who could refuse such an invitation? Secondly, I am the author of early-day motion 799—one of the early-day motions on the subject—and it starts:

It makes no mention of fees in general. Thirdly, I feel this afternoon that I am at the apex of my political career in the House. Yesterday, I was elected as chairman of the all-party parliamentary beer club, and I do not think that it will get better than that, particularly after what I say today.

I want to talk about the political context of top-up fees, which is easily forgotten. I then want to answer the question, which has been asked in interventions on Monday and today: why should students who go to top universities and will subsequently earn large amounts of money in future not pay more than students who go to other universities—bog standard universities, as some people might say?

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First, on the political context, the proposals arise from the review that the Prime Minister set up after the last election, but very few of us thought that we would end up with top-up fees. It was reported that he had told activists that student fees produced the greatest number of voter complaints during the election. He said:

Well, he was not wrong; it certainly did come up a lot during the election campaign.

Hon. Members will remember the Deputy Prime Minister's unfortunate incident with the egg. On a much smaller scale, I was involved in a copycat incident at York university two days afterwards, when a student cracked an egg over my head. That happened two days after some flour had been thrown over me, and the local paper helpfully said that all I needed was some milk and I would be a right Yorkshire pudding!

I was slightly heartened that, the following day, I was at home when an election leaflet from my principal opponent—a Conservative—came through the door, and there was a picture of him shaking hands with someone who was mildly familiar. I then realised that my Conservative opponent was shaking hands with my Conservative assailant under the headline, "Conservatives tough on crime and disorder". We all have to put up with these things during political life.

It is interesting that we in the Labour party have changed and become in favour of top-up fees. I take as my text what my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said in the House on 23 March 2000:

That point has been made by Liberal Democrat Members. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills said that he was generally anti top-up fees when he came to office. What has persuaded those men of great intellect and the Labour party, or the Prime Minister, to change their minds?

If we read the papers, which is all we Labour Back Benchers can do to see how such policies are produced, we learn that two great intellects are behind the proposals on top-up fees. First, the late Roy Jenkins apparently had a meeting with the Prime Minister and argued very strongly for top-up fees. Secondly his biographer, Andrew Adonis, who also works for the Prime Minister, apparently thinks that it is a very good idea as well. Andrew Adonis is obviously a man of far greater intellect than I am, but the one thing that I have and he does not is the ability to vote on top-up fees in the House.

I gently tell those on the Front Bench that this will be the first domestic policy issue since 1997 where not only have both major Opposition parties lined up against it but so have a very substantial proportion—50 per cent.,

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or perhaps a bit more—of Labour Back Benchers, and there is the House of Lords as well. Politics is ultimately a game of numbers, and I really do not see how the current proposals can possibly get through the House.

I come now to the policy issues that underlie the debate. Why should not students pay top-up fees? Well, the question itself reveals the philosophy behind the proposals. We will basically have a market-based education system. We will have elite universities, and the theory goes that people should pay to go to them and that they will be where all the research takes place. We will then have teaching factories, where those who have lower aspirations will go.

In A-level economics, we learn that, for a market to work, people must have perfect information. People will not have the information to decide whether to pay the top-up fees. How can 18-year-olds from working-class estates in Selby possibly decide whether to take a degree at Cambridge, where they will have to pay? The fee will not be £3,000 ultimately, because the cap will go, and they will have to pay many more thousands of pounds. How can they possibly decide whether that will benefit them most? If they are risk averse—all the indications are that working-class children are risk averse for a whole variety of reasons—they will go to the nearest university. Their choices will be restricted.

We have heard that there will be bursary schemes and that further announcements will be made about them. At the moment, the proposals are that each university should draw up its own bursary scheme, although it will have to meet some as yet undefined standard. Let us imagine being an 18-year-old from a working-class estate trying to work out what bursary scheme is on offer from which university. That proposal will act as a massive deterrent. For those just above the threshold who will not get bursaries—those from hard-working working-class and lower-middle-class families—how on earth will their choices not be distorted by top-up fees? Of course they will be distorted.

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West): Is my hon. Friend therefore saying that, in essence, children of middle-class families will have the wherewithal to make sensible and intelligent judgments based on the return that they will get from universities, but working-class kids will lack that wherewithal?

Mr. Grogan: No. Let me give an example. Last summer, I advised a student from a working-class estate in Selby who was desperately trying to get to university. He could not open a bank account because the bank would not accept him unless he had a passport or a driving licence. It is so hard to get to universities from some backgrounds if information is not available and if family pressures are not necessarily in favour of going to university. In our party, we should take great pride in the fact that our ambition is to get far more children from working-class backgrounds into university. So far, we have failed. The best that we have done is to maintain the proportion, and the best that these proposals will do is maintain the proportion. That represents a poverty of ambition.

Mr. Hendrick: Surely, making out, as the Opposition have done, that this debt will be a millstone round the

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neck of young people after they have finished their studies is not the way to encourage them to go into higher education. Is it not the case that if we say that higher education is an investment in their future, they will be far more likely to go into higher education and to get those benefits? We are focusing all the time on the costs and not on the benefits.

Mr. Grogan: The costs are real, and they are very real for people who are 18 and who do not have a tradition of taking out great debts in their family. That will obviously have an effect on their choices. We only need to speak to working-class students, and to students who will be just above the threshold, to realise that it will affect their choices.

Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley): Surely the point of the proposed changes is precisely that students are not being asked to pay anything upfront. We are not asking poor students to pay; we are asking better-off graduates to pay. My hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education said the other day that a graduate earning £18,000 would pay back £5.20 a week. Surely that is a price worth paying for education.

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